Paper Angels

Written by Alexander Greco

It was just before sunset on a Thursday, I’ll never forget. The sky billowed with dense, dark clouds painted a pale yellow at their bellies, and the sunlight just began peeking its beams at us from the distance edge of the mounting storm. The water was a crashing, frothing wine-bottle-glass green, churning and careening endlessly. That water, the corridors of the ship, the communications from hundreds of miles away: these had been the entirety of our lives—the entirety or our reality—since we left port.

We’d been at sea for over a month before we saw any violence, but when violence came, it came in storms. It always came in storms.

The main threat were the Zyrian’s fleets of Mothships, but they and their allies—the Al’Yrer and the Malodrites—were equipped with a tremendous arsenal of aquatic vehicles, instruments of war and aetheric attack options.

News came from all around us of featherswarm bombings, Dynessian hypercannon attacks, Bloolvalian-class submarines, and the Malodrites’ dreaded Fromawkaean Railguns. More minds had been lost than lives—insanity now ran rampant at sea (possibly the worst attack the Zyrians and their allies could’ve made on us)—but at least a dozen ships had been sunk since our fleets had been dispersed to aid the Vallians.

We’d stayed away from the worst of it. A few times, we’d spotted Mothships on the horizon, or our oracles had sensed Bloolvalian subs within a couple miles or so of us, but we’d effectively danced our way far from conflict. Why?

Special cargo, our captain had told us. We were carrying some sort of classified weaponry, or so they told us. No one had any word of what it was, what it did or what our purpose for carrying it was. We were only told we had something on board that wasn’t supposed to be talked about, wasn’t supposed to be known and wasn’t supposed to be used.

Of course, we talked about it. Speculated. But, of course, no one knew what it was, and, of course, it had never been used. It hadn’t been used.

They hadn’t been used.

It was just before sunset on a Thursday.

We spotted a Mothship off the starboard bow of the ship, sailing against the light of the oncoming sunset—something almost like a grey, feathery cocoon in the shape of a crystal.

Our ship’s hull was made of inches-thick steel. We had cannons. We had artillery. We had an arsenal for two times the number of sailors on board. There were eight Elvish spellswords from Glondolia. There were twelve Orcish mercenaries from the Wildlands. There were thirty-six Dwarven riflemen from the Shurkurkian Highlands.

Nearly the entirety of the Mothship’s exterior was paper thin.

Still.

A single Mothship struck fear in the heart of every sailor aboard that ship.

I was standing with a cluster of sailors and mercs at the rail of the ship, about eight yards from the captain and his upper brass. From behind us, someone yelled, “CAPTAIN!”

We all turned to look. It was one of the oracles. They pointed North off the port bow, out toward the darkening horizon of the cloudy veil.

ANOTHER ONE!” they yelled.

We all turned and looked.

No, TWO,” the man yelled, “THERE’S TWO OUT THERE!”

And sure enough, as the oracles always were, they were right.

A woman, another one of the oracles, yelled from the opposite side of the ship, “THERE’S THREE OVER HERE CAPTAIN!”

CAPTAIN!” came from a distant voice at the far end of the ship.

A man came running forward toward us all.

CAPTAIN! JURRIS SPOTTED ANOTHER MOTHSHIP BEHIND US! SAYS THERE’S FOUR OTHERS SOMEWHERE IN THE DARK!”

Even from yards away, I could hear Captain Fallis curse under his breath, with his second in command—a young gnomish lad named Carvawnkle—asking, “Captain, are they circling us? Do they know we’re here? Have they spotted us?”

“I have no doubt they know we’re here,” Fallis spoke, then, raising his voice to his famous roar, began belting out orders to all around.

Carvawnkle and the other brass began relaying orders, taking command of this group, waking up that group, collecting all the mercs and riflemen and spellswords.

That’s when the Mothships began flashing with brief spats of distant light, and burning stars tore across the sky all around us.

I’ll never forget. It always came in storms.1

I was running to my station at one of the cannons when blinding flash of light sailed in front of me. I could feel its heat like for a single fraction of a second like I’d tripped into a funeral pyre and yanked back from it before I could catch on fire.

I hit the deck, covering my face with my arms, and curling up into a fetal position, but it was just a gut reaction more than anything useful—dodging the Mothships’ Frall Cannons was like trying to dodge lightning. I heard the Captain shouting before I looked up again, “WHY AREN’T THE SPELLSWORDS RAISING THE WARDS? RAISE THE FRACKING WARDS! NOW!”

When I did look up, I could barely see. Blurry colors and streaks filled my vision—and the physical things I could see were as dark as if this was night.

In the long seconds it took my eyes to readjust, I could first make out a molten hole in the deck of the ship several yards ahead of me, then three other sailors and an Orcish merc curled up on the metal, slowly uncovering their eyes, and anxiously looking around them. Then I saw the two lifeless bodies with seared, blackened holes—one through the chest, the other through an abdomen—torn through them, each a half-foot in diameter.

More stars sailed through the air at us, most missing, but enough hitting their mark.

I stood up, heart pounding, and ran across the deck, crouched over. Behind me, Captain still screaming at the Elves, “GET THE FUCKING WARDS UP!”

Then Carvawnkle yelling, “CAPTAIN! SWARMS APPROACHING!”

Those who heard this screamed out like ripple, “SWARMS! SWARMS!”, then put on gasmasks if they had them, or, as I did, hit the deck, put our fingers over our eyes, took one last breath before mentally preparing ourselves for screaming, oxygen-deprived lungs, then smashed the sides of our hands into our nostrils and over our lips.

I could hear the screams of the unlucky and unprepared before I felt the clouds of clawing, cloying, scratching, digging, feathery insects envelop my head as they’d likely enveloped everyone’s head in the open air at this point.

They tried to dig their way under my palms and fingers and into my ears and eyes and mouth and nose, but I just clamped my hands tighter over my head. With the absolute terror, with the sound of stars burning through the sky, with the pounding in my chest, the screaming in my head, the oxygen in my lungs didn’t last long before my chest began to burn.

But though I could barely hear through my hands and through the fluttering, flaking, scratching sounds of the swarms of moths, a single sound became overwhelmingly noticeable—the silence of the ocean. The wards had been put up. It was only a matter of time now—hopefully no more than a few minutes.

I heard them walking across the deck—the sprayers, or whichever sailors left alive had gotten to the suits first. “Keep holding!” they yelled through the muffling of their facemasks.

Do not breathe until the all clear!” they shouted.

One passed by me, and I felt my body sprayed in a dense mist of foul-smelling chemicals—nothing toxic to humans, but nauseating when breathed in.

Do not breathe until the all clear!” they repeated over and over again. “Do not breathe until the all clear!”

And within seconds of being doused in the spray, the moths covering my body writhed their tiny death throes until their bodies either fell to the deck, or piled on my body like a massacre of disintegrating tissue.

Do not breathe!” they repeated. “Hold!” they continued. “Hold!”

And then, they were silent for several agonizing seconds, until the sprayers all began shouting. “Okay! All clear! Acquire personal gas masks immediately!”

I did as they said. I didn’t want to have to go through that again anyway, and who knew how long the wards would last.2

Everyone began scrambling across the deck.

Some men and women were still screaming—whether from wounds from the stars, or from the insanity inflicted on them by the moths.

Nonetheless, it was all chaos.

Nonetheless, all was a storm.

Nonetheless, violence had found us.

On my way back to the bridge, back to the entrance below deck, I passed by Captain Fallis and Carvawnkle, and overheard Carvawnkle say, “Captain, we can’t we can’t let the enemy know we—”

“If they’ve surrounded one ship with this many Mothships, I find it unlikely they don’t. Go get—”

And then I was below deck. And I didn’t think about it. I didn’t stop to ask questions. I rushed to the nearest munitions room to grab a gas mask. When I’d acquired it, I ran upstairs to my battle post—the center artillery cannon.

I stood in the glass dome just below the rotating cannon, and peered out across the ocean. That’s when I realized they were no longer shooting stars at us. That’s when I saw the Zaeivlow carving through the ocean.

Seven of them—just from my small field of view. Seven biomechanical horrors—huge sharklike monstrosities that spun and swirled and screamed and belched black smoke fumes. Their bodies were small whirlwinds of razors and metallic teeth and gnashing machineries, with hollow whirlpools of chainsaws where mouths would be.

Seven, and likely a dozen more if they were distributed in all directions like they were in the one area I could see.

My heart dropped at the sight of this. Dread filled my core and hollowed me out. At this number, they would tear through the war like a storm of butcher knives being hurled at a tent of wax paper. This was the end. I was sure of it.

But, we still had time to aim the cannons. Still had time to fight back. Still had time to go down swinging.

All stations, hold your fire,” was called through the intercoms. “I repeat, all stations ceasefire, now.”

And the entire ship stood still.

I turned and looked at my commanding officer, shouted through the gas mask, “Are they insane!?”

Then someone inside the room shouted, “Look! Look out there! Over the water!”

And we all turned. Out there, outside the boundaries of the wards, five spheres of some sort of material—canvas or sheets or… Something—was unfolding itself midair. These spheres unfolded themselves… Until…3

They grew larger and larger… Taking on strange and larger and larger shapes—impossibly large for their original size, almost as if they were unfolding from some pocket universe, until…

They unfolded into five tremendously tall… people, or at least the shapes of people—five giant shapes of featureless humanoid figures, all made from some kind of canvas—but the figures played tricks on your mind, as they moved while floating in the air as three-dimensional figures would, but they looked like flat sheets of paper against the shapes and the forms of the ocean.

Were these the secret weapons?

My jaw had already dropped at this sight—dumbfounded both by the order to hold fire, and by these things’ sudden appearance—and, had we not all been wearing gas masks, I was sure I would see several other bewildered faces. Down below, sailors were rushing back out onto the deck to watch what was happening. As soon as my commanding officer began rushing out the domed room to the stairs to join the sailors on deck, I joined with them.

We all stood there—still basking in the silence the wards offered us—and watched these five nonsensical figures stand against the twilight oceans (stand facing the enemy).

I don’t know why or what made me think this, but some gut feeling told me I was standing in the presence of gods, or at least of some entities that existed in a higher state of being than us mortals. Something about them seemed… Despite all I’d ever seen, despite all I’d ever heard about, despite all I knew, something about these things seemed impossible. Not even otherworldly, other… Just other. Outside the scope of things, outside the scope of being, but—

But the Zaeivlow! The Zaeivlow approached! What could these things do to—

The five figures, their massive, paper-like frames hovered in a semi-circle around the front half of the ship, each raised their hands up. Pillars of light fell from the sky, each one tearing through a Zaeivlow before expanding into these heaven-reaching towers of light and vaporizing the Zaeivlow.

All of them. Gone in an instant. Just like that.

And then the pillars were gone. Debris littered the ocean waves where the biomechanical horrors had once been. Massive holes had been torn open in the clouds above, revealing the starry sky. Sailors and mercs all around stood for long moments in silence. The paper angels still hovered there in the sky.

One of the sailors howled. Others followed. Then, we were an uproar.

WARDS DOWN!” the captain roared above us all.4

At that moment, the uproar died.

At that same moment, lights began flashing from the Mothships.

The floating figures raised their hands.

Lights arching across the sky at impossible speeds all stopped midair—all just outside the radius of the figures.

Dozens and dozens of stars shot across the ocean at us, and all of them stopped before the canvas guardians.

Dozens and dozens, and then… they stopped. Hundreds of quivering stars hung in the air just beyond the paper angels, and the Mothships had stopped firing.

The center figure raised its arms and face up to the sky.

All the trembling bolts of the sky’s fire collected before the center figure, coming together in a sphere.

At that same moment, fire synchronously erupted from every Mothship, instantly flooding across the surface of the ocean.

The four paper figures to the left and the right all lowered down to the surface of the water, putting their hands to the water as the center figure maintained its position, still collecting the shot stars to one center sphere.

Within seconds, the fires had spread across the vast distance between us and the Mothships—setting the entire ocean ablaze. However, the moment they made contact with where the four figures touched the water, it was as if the fire was siphoned into their other-dimensional bodies, and filled them with it.

Within just as many seconds as it took the fires to spread across the vast square miles of the ocean surrounding us, the figures had vacuumed the flames into their bodies. Just like that. Gone.

WARDS DOWN, GOD DAMNIT!”

And suddenly, the sounds of the ocean roared back into our ears.

The center figure then lowered its hands, and reached into the sphere before it.

It drew out a spear made of the burning skyfire, then cast it out across the oceans.

An instant later, one of the Mothships burst into flames.

It reached into the sphere again. Pulled out another spear of light.

Cast it across the ocean.

Another ship burst into flames.

One by one, the center figure cast down every Mothship that surrounded us—but just as it threw its last spear, a dense, black bolt shot from the last ship. Rising, rising, rising into the air.

“A Nothing Bomb…” someone muttered next to me.

The entire deck began muttering anxiously to each other.

“A what?” I asked.

The sailor turned to look at me. “It’s a bomb that erases existence when it explodes. Everything here, within its explosion, will be erased from being. Not burnt. Not evaporated. Not bombarded. Erased.”

My jaw relaxed and dropped in shock again.

I turned and looked back out at the ship just in time to see the center figure cast its last spear—incinerating the distant ship moments later.

The bomb arced across the twilight sky before disappearing above the clouds.

The center figure reached out to the burning sphere before it. Placed its hands against its surface. Absorbed the ball of starlight ahead of it.

Filled itself with it.

Suddenly, the bolt of empty, pure darkness and devoidedness fell from the sky above us. The central figure rose into the sky, raised its hands up to meet the bomb. It fell upon the figure, and immediately exploded in a disc of pure black emptiness.

However, the figure still stood there, seeming to the hold up the explosion above it, and from the figure poured forth the starfire it had swallowed.

The emptiness filled with the light, but the howling explosion was like an infinitely expanding maw of annihilation—it seemed impossible the light left within the figure would be enough to feed the hollow of the Nothing Bomb.

The other four figures hovered upwards, raising their hands to meet the howling, exploding Nothing, and from their fingertips, fire poured forth as if forty spickets from forty Suns had been opened.

The hungering vastness was filled with the relentless onslaught of fire from the four figures fingertips, and from the light of the central figure.

For long, horrific moments, this cosmic, violent equilibrium was maintained, until, in a fraction of an instant, the explosion of the Nothing Bomb was over.

The sky was filled with the clouds—though the clouds had had these holes put in them from the pillars of light of the five figures. The oceans still rocked. The wind still stole across our hair and across the waves. The Mothships still burned and sank at the edge of the horizon.

The five figures lowered their hands, and hovered up above us all for this one moment. Then, they all began folding back upon themselves, folding into small paper spheres in small little pocket dimensions, until they were just these five tiny paper specs floating through the air. Floating back across the air. Floating back to the ship.

Back to the captain, who stood amidst us all with a small metal box with its lid pulled back just enough for the floating specs to drift back inside their box.

And then the captain closed his small metal box. He turned to Carvawnkle and said, “After the bodies are brought below deck, get every sailor and merc and Titan-fearing, two-legged, still-breathing man or woman on this ship a glass of wine or whiskey, whichever they’d prefer. Tomorrow, we set sail for the nearest port. Get moving.”

And the storm was over.

It all happened just before sunset on a Thursday.

I’ll never forget.


References:

  1. Scraps of Tape. (2014). A Neverending [Recorded by Scraps of Tape]. On Sjatte Vancinette. Sweden: A Tendervision Recording.
  2. 65daysofstatic. (2006). The Big Afraid [Recorded by 65daysofstatic]. On One Time for All Time. Sheffield, England: Monotreme Records.
  3. 65daysofstatic. (2006). Radio Protector [Recorded by 65daysofstatic]. On One Time for All Time. Sheffield, England: Monotreme Records.
  4. 65daysofstatic. (2004). Aren’t We All Running? [Recorded by 65daysofstatic]. On The Fall of Math. Sheffield, England: Monotreme Records.

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